The sun’s light would dim.
Temperatures would fall and crops would wither.
The sky would rain black ash and many millions could starve in the famine that followed the mushroom cloud’s immediate and massive destruction.
Nuclear Autumn would be nothing like this autumn, or any other in the history of humanity.
Hard to fathom, said Tyler White, who teaches political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
But important to contemplate.
“When we forget about how dangerous these weapons are, we might be in the position to use them without thinking them through.”
In July, “Nuclear Weapons in a Changing Climate,” authored by Adam Liska, Eric Holley, Robert Oglesby and White was published in Environment Magazine.
The authors painted a scientific picture of the fallout from nuclear weapon use. Shortened growing seasons. Decades of below-normal temperatures. Significantly decreased precipitation, resulting in famines that could “kill up to a billion people from starvation.”
They called it a “global nuclear drought.”
And it would change civilization as we know it, said Liska, lead author of the article, via email Wednesday. To prove their point, the authors set out to show that the detonation of small numbers of nuclear weapons — or a single Chinese thermonuclear bomb — would lead to similar devastation.
“Does the U.S. military understand that the limited use of nuclear weapons on North Korea could indirectly kill a billion people globally due to climate changes, and will they ensure that this much larger tragic event does not occur?” Liska said.
The associate professor of biological systems engineering at UNL hopes military planners heed the message.
So do I.
There was a game I played as a girl, walking home from school down 33rd Street, when Lincoln ended at the highway and the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in full and frightening force.
It was simple: Who would I take with me when the world ended?
Maybe every kid growing up in the shadow of the bomb had a similar fantasy.
Of course, I would live. And so would my parents. My sister. My best friend, Kelly. My dog, Yogi. Maybe my brother. (OK, probably my brother.)
God would be our landlord; we would be the chosen few.
At one time, our government promulgated a similar fantasy. And we built bomb shelters and stocked them with water and canned rations and radios with batteries.
The nuclear superpowers played a game of their own called Mutual Assured Destruction, understanding that to launch a weapon at the other side meant the end of everything. It sounded almost as mad as its acronym, but somehow, despite the close calls with Armageddon, the civil-defense sirens stayed silent.
Today, nine countries possess thousands of nuclear weapons — far fewer than at the height of the nuclear arms race — but more than enough to kill all of us, many times over.
The United States has 6,800 in its nuclear stable; Russia claims 7,000.
Pakistan has had the bomb since 1998. India since 1974. China and France and the U.K. and Israel have small stockpiles of nuclear weapons. And now, North Korea, its leader gloating about his country’s ability to reach the continental U.S. with one of its big, shiny missiles, while President Trump promises fire and fury in return, the likes of which “the world has never seen.”
The rest of us are left to ponder exactly what this means — since the world has already seen the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But the world has changed since the end of World War II and the Cold War, White said. The existential threat from the former Soviet Union has diminished, while fears of conflict with North Korea, or between other members of the volatile nuclear family have increased.
“We used to think about the Russians and think about the end of life on earth,” he said. “Now the question is what if two or three or even a dozen nuclear weapons were launched, what are the implications of that?”
It’s something most people who like to sleep at night don’t contemplate.
But probably should.
White pays attention. He teaches a class on nuclear deterrence and listens to what smart people in the field have to say.
Which is: “They see nuclear war in the realm of a one-in-six chance right now and most of their uncertainty is not coming from Kim Jong Un, it’s coming from the president of the United States.”
His advice to Donald Trump: “Twitter is not the appropriate channel to deliver your nuclear deterrent message.”
His take on Kim: “At the end of the day, he’s not going to launch a nuclear weapon because he knows it will be the end of his regime.”
Back in January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its doomsday clock to 2½ minutes until midnight, as close as it's been since 1953.
Don’t panic, White said.
But don’t play the odds.
“Be informed. Talk to your elected representatives. It’s what you need to do in a democracy.”
Liska was more specific.
“If people are concerned, they should contact Senator Deb Fischer.”
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces can be reached at 402-441-4600.